PARIS — It was like something out of a Victor Hugo novel, updated for the 21st century: Vandals wrote graffiti on convenience stores and iconic national monuments. Students lit fires in trash cans and torched cars. Demonstrators blocked major highways, gas stations and toll booths. Police shot tear gas and water cannons into crowds of angry rioters, leaving hundreds injured.
France’s most iconic boulevard, the Champs-Elysees, was a haze of smoke and gas and screams as demonstrators chanted, “It’s the hour of revolt.”
Some see a spontaneous uprising against the policies and personality of French President Emmanuel Macron, sparked by a deeply unpopular hike in the gas tax. But others say the French political system is the target, the kickoff to an amorphous, leaderless, generalized revolt against the elites who have long dominated statecraft.
France, political commentator Nicolas Beytout wrote in the daily newspaper L’Opinion, “is dancing on a volcano.”
For weeks, tens of thousands of protesters called “gilets jaunes” — or yellow jackets, because of the reflective safety coats French drivers are required by law to keep in their cars — have been hitting the streets of Paris and other cities in France on the weekends, and now Belgium.
The Interior Ministry said the protesters Saturday numbered almost 140,000, down from a high of more than 280,000 on Nov. 17. But the latest outpouring proved the most violent, with suspected provocateurs on the far left and far right blamed for disrupting a largely peaceful street protest in the capital.
Three have died in incidents connected to the violence. Hundreds have been injured in clashes with the police. More than 300 are in custody on charges related to the riots. The damage in Paris to date amounts to over $4 million, city officials said, as they continued to clean up the district.
The weekend of chaos and vandalism is said to be the largest and most damaging popular protests in Paris since the generation-defining uprising of May 1968, which led eventually to the downfall of President Charles de Gaulle.
Protests in various parts of France continued Monday, even as French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe held emergency talks with officials and party leaders. He was scheduled to meet with protest leaders Tuesday, but representatives of the protest movement told Le Figaro newspaper that they wouldn’t go unless their demand to freeze new taxes are met.
Mr. Macron and Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, meanwhile, were determining whether or not to impose a state of emergency that would allow security forces more leeway in cracking down on rioters.
“Nothing is off limits,” Mr. Castaner told reporters on Monday. “I am considering everything.”
Caught off balance
While some in the local media are dismissing the protesters as thugs, hooligans and right-wing extremists, the centrist Mr. Macron — who was elected last year as the head of a new party supposedly formed to break up the status quo — has clearly been caught off balance.
The president returned from the Group of 20 summit in Argentina to hold emergency talks on security Sunday and to meet Monday with Parisian police officers dealing with the protesters. He canceled a trip to Serbia scheduled for later this week to deal with the crisis, The Associated Press reported.
But after the weekend’s violence and signs that the movement is attracting converts — French paramedics declared their support Monday — it’s anyone’s guess where the movement is going, analysts say.
“We will know in a few days, after Saturday’s protests and the first negotiations with the yellow jackets if an explosion can be avoided,” Mr. Beytout wrote. “For now, there is something to be worried about.”
The rioters first blocked roads in mid-November anger over Mr. Macron’s proposal to hike gasoline taxes as part of a program to reduce the nation’s carbon emissions. The tax may have been an irritant to city dwellers who commute on the famed Parisian Metro. For rural and blue-collar French in the provinces, it was a much heavier and immediate burden.
But the demonstrations have unexpectedly morphed into a general expression of discontent over living conditions in France and Mr. Macron’s pro-business policies, designed to boost France’s lagging competitiveness in the global economy. The reforms have made it easier for employers to hire and fire workers and cut taxes on corporations, but have yet to restrain rising living costs or spark significant job growth for ordinary people.
Specifically, many of the protesters want higher salaries and pensions, jobs, better services and tax cuts.
“We are hungry. … We don’t have jobs. … We want to live. … Stop the taxes. … The people are tired of it,” read one sign at the demonstration on Saturday as people chanted “Macron, resign!”
The movement has no official leadership and has been organized via social media. On the streets, crowds now include the young and old, urbanites and rural residents. More notably, it has no links to any of France’s long-standing political parties or movements.
“I’m here because we need more social justice,” said Daniel, 62, of Paris, like many other protesters offering only his first name to a reporter. “It’s not good, what’s happening in this country. … [People] are just getting poorer and poorer. But Macron, he represents the rich.”
“I voted for Macron,” he added, referring to elections last spring when Mr. Macron’s anti-establishment party, En Marche (Onward), won decisively. “I didn’t want to, but I was worried about the far right winning.”
Meanwhile, Loic, 47, from a Paris suburb, said he usually votes conservative but when the center-right Republicans lost in the first round of the elections, he supported the far-right National Front. “I don’t like the far right so much,” he said. “But no one else was offering anything different. Things have to change here.”
Feeling the impact
Support for the protesters is strong considering the disruption to the economy, a reflection of a long-standing French popular tolerance of and sympathy for worker protests. The demonstrations are hitting some of the top tourist centers, shops and eateries in Paris, but commuters and ordinary Parisians are also feeling the effects.
At a bus stop across town from the protests in the Marais district, a sign indicated that the buses weren’t running Saturday because of the protests. Would-be commuters grumbled over having their plans thwarted and their lives interrupted.
Still, polls show that three-quarters of the French approve of the movement, even as the president’s approval ratings have fallen to below 33 percent. Meanwhile, analysts pointed out that the losers of the election last year, the far left and the far right, are trying to capitalize on the anger at the government.
Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and far-right National Front chief Marine Le Pen both called for the National Assembly to be dissolved, which would mean new elections. That would threaten the stranglehold on the power of En Marche, Mr. Macron’s fledgling political movement.
But Najet, a business owner in Paris, said she doesn’t want that. It is too early to judge Mr. Macron, she said.
“He’s only been here a short time. We need to give him a chance,” she said. “I understand why people are angry, but he didn’t create this mess.”